God Has Spoken: He Sounds Like Jesus Christ

Emil Brunner and Karl Barth famously had a serious quarrel, even fall-out, over Barth’s perception of ‘natural theology’ in Brunner’s approach. While it is true that Brunner affirmed something like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, he also has some very strong points of convergence with both Barth and Thomas Torrance for that matter. I’m inclined to go with Barth on all things contra-natural theology, but I actually think Brunner is much closer to Barth than say even Calvin or any of the Post Reformed orthodox in the 16th and 17th centuries. Note what Brunner writes, if I hadn’t told deusdixityou beforehand you might have thought this was Barth instead (well maybe):

(2) Secondly, the concept, the “Name” of God, suggests further that God is Person: He is not an “IT”; He is our primary “Thou”. That which we can think and know by our own efforts is always an object of thought and knowledge, some thing which has been thought, some thing which has been known, therefore it is never “Person”. Even the human person is never truly “person” to us so long as we merely “think” it; the human being only becomes “person” to us when he speaks to us himself, when he manifests the mystery of his being as a “thou”, in the very act of addressing us.[1]

Let’s stop here for just a moment before we pick up again. In some ways this functional understanding of what constitutes personhood is problematic; not just for reasons that implicate say the ethics of something like abortion and establishing personhood, but also because Brunner is using this as an analogue, a social analogue for determining the personhood of God (someone might want to call this a type of analogia entis or ‘analogy of being’). That notwithstanding, what he writes following still is insightful; Brunner continues:

It is true of course, that to a certain extent we can know the human “thou” by our own efforts, because, and in so far as it is “also an I”, a fellow-human being. The mystery of human personality is not absolute; it is only relative, because it is not only “other than I” but “the same as I”. It can be placed under the same general heading “Man” along with me; it is not and unconditioned “Thou” because it is at the same time a “co-I”. There is no general heading for God. God in particular has no “I” alongside of Himself. He is the “Thou” which is absolutely over against everything else, the “Thou” who cannot at the same time be on the same  level with “me”, “over-against” whom He stands.

Therefore I cannot myself unconditionally think God as this unconditioned “Thou”, but I can only know Him in so far as He Himself, by His own action, makes Himself known to me. It is, of course, true that man can think out a God for himself—the history of philosophy makes this quite plain. In extreme cases a man can “think” a personal God; theistic philosophy is a genuine, even if an extreme possibility. But this personal God who has been conceived by man remains some-thing which has been thought, the object of our thought-world, acting, speaking, manifesting Himself—He does not meet me as a “Thou”, and is therefore not a real “Thou”. He is, as something which I have thought, my function, my positing: He is not the One who addresses me, and in this “address” reveals Himself to me as the One who is quite independent of me.

The God who is merely thought to be personal is not truly personal; the “Living God” who enters my sphere of thought and experience from beyond my thought, in the act of making Himself known to me, by Himself naming His Name—He alone is truly personal.[2]

Karl Barth in his Göttingen Dogmatics has a whole chapter entitled Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken.’ This is language that Barth appropriated from Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, and now we see it as a theme in Brunner’s theology as well. The social analogy notwithstanding, the important aspect to highlight here is that for the Christian we don’t think up God, we don’t think a God concept, we instead are confronted by the living voice of God revealed in Jesus Christ; and it is here where our conception of God comes from.

Implication

So what’s the “practical” implication of this? I would say that, if Brunner et al. is right, Christians are dependent upon revelation in order to think God. We are dependent upon hearing his voice through the voice of the eternal Son incarnate in Jesus Christ. This means, I would contend, that Christian theologians should not try to discover a concept of God as a prius to the God revealed; we should not attempt to synthesize the god discovered by the philosopohers with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. At most, as the patristic theologians did, we might be able to ‘evangelize a metaphysic’ and use the grammar present therein in order to help us talk about God; but only with the qualification that said metaphysic has been retexted in a non-correlationist way under the pressure of the triune God revealed in Christ.

That didn’t sound very practical, did it? Practically speaking I think Christians should not be afraid of the so called ‘scandal of particularity.’ We serve a peculiar and particular God, he is sui generis, unique, and special. He is only knowable because he graciously wanted to be known, and so he became us in Christ that we might become him (so says Irenaneus). The Gospel is the power of God, as such we shouldn’t be afraid to speak after and from this particular God revealed in Jesus Christ. The world may not like it, other Christians might not even like it, but we must insist that the God we speak of and to is the One who first spoke to us in his Son.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 121-22.

[2] Ibid., 121-22.

*repost

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The Name of God in Exodus 3:14: How Revelation Trumps Speculative ‘Being’ Theology. Richard Muller and Emil Brunner in Critical Conference

Who is God? How can we know God? These are some of the most profound questions humanity can engage with. In the history of Christian ideas there has, of course, been an attempt to answer these types of questions as faithfully as possible. Because of the nature of God, and his ineffability, there is almost a grasping by many in an attempt to un-pack who God is in an articulate and maimonidesintelligible way. This is what we see taking place not just in the early church Patristic theology, but also in the spirit of that, in the Medieval church as well. The problem with being pushed up against an ultimate, like the living God, is that, again, people will take desperate measures in an attempt to talk God.

More forcefully, I will contend that in the medieval and post reformed orthodox theologian’s zeal to talk God they adopted philosophical talk about God and forcefully linked that talk with what we are provided with by Holy Scripture. One prime example of this is described by Richard Muller as he attempts to (artificially) argue that in fact the philosophical substance metaphysics of the medievalists and post reformed orthodox was not really a philosophical imposition upon God—when they attempted to talk about God’s inner-life, his being (ousia)—but instead there was an exegetical/biblical correlation which was driving their metaphysical thinking in regard to the inner-reality of who God is in himself. Muller identifies Exodus 3:14, where we encounter the tetragrammaton, and self naming of God as the touchstone passage appealed to in order to establish this exegetical linkage: “14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” As Muller notes it is here where we are confronted with a correlation between the philosophers conceiving of God as ‘being’, and God’s revelation of himself and his self-being. Muller writes:

Etienne Gilson makes the very pointed remark, in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, that the great source and starting-point of all medieval discussion of the being and essence of God is not Greek philosophy in general or Aristotle in particular, but Moses—in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Nor ought we to attribute the use of Exodus 3:14 as a reference to the being of God as a result of ignorance of Hebrew and dependence on the sum qui sum of the Latin Vulgate. We read, for example, in the Guide for the Perplexed of Moses Maimonides,

God taught Moses how to teach them and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayah denotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between verbs “to be” and “to exist.” The principle point in this phrase is that the same word which denotes “existence” is repeated as an attribute…. This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “existing being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

Of the Holy Name, Maimonides adds, “the tetragrammaton … is not an appellative; it does not imply anything except his existence. Absolute existence includes the idea of eternity, i.e., the necessity of existence.” The point must be made, with respect to Gilson’s remarks, that however much the classical philosophical heritage influenced scholastic formulation, the form that the influence took and, indeed, the medieval interpretation of the classical sources, was in large measure determined by biblical exegesis—and that, granting the Greek philosophical sources of medieval Jewish and Christian conceptions of God, those sources, taken by themselves, do not by themselves account for either the theology or the metaphysics of the medieval thinkers.

We must take exception to often-uttered claims that descriptions of God in terms of “substance” and “essence” lead ineluctably “to the unfruitful abstractions of the conception of God in Greek philosophy,” or that language such as that of Aquinas concerning God as “supremely existent” (maximè ens) is a “Grecian” as opposed, presumably, to a “religious conception of God.” Such claims assume, first, that discussion of the divine essence is a fundamentally Greek enterprise (if Gilson and Maimonides are correct, it is not) — and second, quite arbitrarily, that abstraction is both characteristically Greek and quite “unfruitful” and, in addition, is somehow divorced from the “religious conception of God.” We ought not to accept any of these comments uncritically, nor ought we to suppose that the medieval development of concepts of God as willing, as thinking, as loving, and as, by nature, spirit (none of which are without “religious” implication), can be severed in a facile manner from the issue of the divine being or essence.[1]

But is this really the case? Does Exodus 3:14 provide focus on the ‘being’ of God in such a way that it opens God up to being correlated with the concept of ‘being’ that the philosophers developed by their own wits? This is what Muller is attempting to argue in a smoke-and-mirrors fashion.

Contrariwise and rightfully so, almost as if Emil Brunner was responding directly to Muller, Brunner writes this in 1946:

The idea of the “Name of God” plays almost no part in the theology of the Early Church, or of the Mediaevil Church, in the Biblical sense of the word. On the other hand, it plays a very dubious part, since the Name which was made known on Sinai, especially the interpretation given in (Exodus 3:14) of the Name “I AM ThAT I AM”, was adopted by speculative theology and made the foundation of its identification of speculative ontology with the Biblical Idea of God. There are possibly few passages in the Scriptures which have been quoted and expounded more often in mediaeval theology than this phrase. Even the Fathers of the Church used it: for instance, Athanasius (Epistula de synodis, 35); Hilary (De Trin. L, I, nr. 5); Gregory Nazianzen (Orationes, 30, 18), and many others. … The real trouble, however, only started with the penetration of the Neo-Platonic idea of the identification of the summum esse and the summum bonum, that is through Augustine … (De Trin. 7, 5, 10). Augustine believes that he has found the point at which the Bible and Plato say the same thing: “Vehementer hoc Plato tenuit et diligentissime commendavit.” No one ever said this before Plato save in this passage in the Book of Exodus (De Civ. Dei, VIII, II). Maritain, indeed, is right when—speaking of this text, understood in this sense, he says: “Such passages contain virtually the whole Thomist doctrine of the Divine Names and of the analogy” (La sagesse augustinienne, p. 405).

In reality the Biblical text does not say this at all. Quite apart from the fact that the interpretation of the Name of Yahweh in the sense of E plays no part in the whole of the Old Testament, and “the honour given to the Name of Yahweh is completely independent of its etymology” (Grether, op. cit., p. 15), even the interpretation given in the E is quite different from that of “the One who IS”, or even “Being”. (In addition to Grether, see also Eichrodt, op. cit., I, pp. 91ff.). Even the Septuagint rendering contains a hint of philosophical suggestion which is entirely absent from the Hebrew text. “The Tetragrammaton lays the stress not upon God’s Being as He is in Himself, but upon His Being as it comes forth in revelation, not upon the Deus absolutus, but upon the Deus revelatus” (Grether, p. 7). The mediaeval use of the general interpretation of the Name of Yahweh (in the sense of E) has led to quite disastrous misunderstanding. The chapters in this book which deal with the Being of God and His Attributes, in their opposition to the mediaeval ontology, will show on what my opinion is based. It would be well worth while to write a critical historical account of the exposition of Exodus 3:14.

It is not only the Name of Yahweh, however, expounded in a speculative manner, which plays an important—though essentially negative—part in mediaeval scholastic theology, but also the notion of the Divine Names. Here, too, the “Areopagite” was a pioneer. His work, De Divinis  nominibus, founded a school of thought. But what he discusses (in this book) under the title of the “Names of God”, has nothing to do with what the Bible says about the Name of God. In this book the author is dealing with the question: To what extent are the ideas with which we, by means of thought, can try to conceive the Divine Being, adequate for the task? Naturally the answer is entirely negative: God is the One who cannot be named; all our ideas are inadequate. The Divine Nature is unspeakable. Certainly, just as the Divine Being is “nameless”, so also it can be described by all kinds of names, just as the One who transcends all existence is also the All-existing (I, 6). We can therefore say everything about God as well as nothing.

Thomas Aquinas (Summa theol., I, 13) introduced this doctrine of the Name of God into his system. By the “Name of God” he, too, understands the ideas by means of which we can “think” God: he, too, has nothing to say about the Biblical understanding of the Name of God. He has eliminated the pantheistic element in the Neo-Platonic teaching of his master, it is true, because at every vital point, by means of the idea of causality, he introduces the thought of Creation, which plays no part in the thought of the Areopagite. Through the fact that to him (Aquianas) the creaturely, as God’s creation, is analogous, the creaturely ideas also acquire the validity of analogical truths. But all this remains within the sphere of the speculative theologia naturalis and is therefore diametrically opposed to all that is meant by the Biblical idea of the “Name of God”.[2]

I just provided a lot of context, especially for a blog post, but it is important for the reader to see how Muller is countered. One of the most important aspects of what Brunner just communicated contra, Muller&co., was this clause, “The Tetragrammaton lays the stress not upon God’s Being as He is in Himself, but upon His Being as it comes forth in revelation, not upon the Deus absolutus, but upon the Deus revelatus.” The rest of what Brunner has developed is intended to support this one clause; it is the absolute opposite of what Muller is attempting to argue. What we have in Exodus 3:14 with the “I am”, according to Brunner et al., has to do with God revealing Himself in precisely personal terms; as the God who freely encounters his people by Name. The point was not a metaphysical one, but it is a personal one; one made in the context of God’s covenant with his forthcoming covenant people in the seed of Moses.

If Brunner is correct, and I believe he is!, what Muller is arguing through his appeal to Aquinas, Maimonides, et al. is false. It is a non-starter to impose speculative metaphysical language upon the text of Scripture, and suggest that the inverse is true. In other words, it is a false start to argue that the text of Scripture is what provided for the substance metaphysics of some of the Patristics, Mediaevals, and Post Reformed Orthodox; indeed it is petitio principii, or to beg the question. What we have provided for in Exodus 3:14 is the God who reveals himself by his Name; that’s what we can get from that passage, and we continue to find that type of disclosure over and again throughout the Old Testament finally climaxing in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ (John 1:18).

Who Cares?

Why is this so important? Why have I written a blog post that is twice as long as the longest blog post should be (according to reader’s attention spans)? Because if we get God wrong everything else subsequent is wrong. I contend that Muller and the Post Reformed Orthodox have gotten God wrong, and those who seek to repristinate that theology (such as evangelical and classically Reformed theologians of today) are also getting God wrong. They are emphasizing speculative things about God, about God’s inner life (in se) by appealing to speculative theological categories through the via negativa (‘negative way’), and emphasizing things about God’s being, and his relation to the world in a God/world relation that are false. They have depersonalized God at the very point in Holy Scripture where God seeks to personalize himself by naming himself for his covenant people as Yahweh. They have replaced positive revelation (kataphysic) with speculative inferences about God based upon philosophical speculation that turns God into some sort of ‘Pure Being’ rather than the God who has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; i.e. again they have depersonalized God and his ways at the very point in Scripture where God has made himself known in personal ‘naming’ ways.

If we get God wrong, everything else following is wrong. That’s why this is so important, and should not be papered over. Martin Luther, in particular, understood all of this very well. His theologia crucis, theology of the Cross, is right in line with the observations provided by Brunner. And yet the Post-Reformed Orthodox ‘still-birthed’ (h/t Ron Frost) that whole Luther[an] trajectory by retrieving the type of speculative mediaeval theology that Luther repented of.

If you want to continue to follow this ground swell among young (and some more senior) evangelical and classically Reformed theologians, then that’s your choice; I won’t be there with you. There’s a better way, it’s the way that Brunner describes; it’s the way Luther went (which Brunner develops later); and it’s the way us evangelical Calvinists go.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three.  The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 50-1.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 128-30.

I Don’t Think God, Neither Do You: God Speaks For and Names Himself

Emil Brunner and Karl Barth famously had a serious quarrel, even fall-out, over Barth’s perception of ‘natural theology’ in Brunner’s approach. While it is true that Brunner affirmed something like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, he also has some very strong points of convergence with both Barth and Thomas Torrance for that matter. I’m inclined to go with Barth on all things contra-natural theology, but I actually think Brunner is much closer to Barth than say even Calvin or any of the Post Reformed orthodox in the 16th and 17th centuries. Note what Brunner writes, if I hadn’t told deusdixityou beforehand you might have thought this was Barth instead (well maybe):

(2) Secondly, the concept, the “Name” of God, suggests further that God is Person: He is not an “IT”; He is our primary “Thou”. That which we can think and know by our own efforts is always an object of thought and knowledge, some thing which has been thought, some thing which has been known, therefore it is never “Person”. Even the human person is never truly “person” to us so long as we merely “think” it; the human being only becomes “person” to us when he speaks to us himself, when he manifests the mystery of his being as a “thou”, in the very act of addressing us.[1]

Let’s stop here for just a moment before we pick up again. In some ways this functional understanding of what constitutes personhood is problematic; not just for reasons that implicate say the ethics of something like abortion and establishing personhood, but also because Brunner is using this as an analogue, a social analogue for determining the personhood of God (someone might want to call this a type of analogia entis or ‘analogy of being’). That notwithstanding, what he writes following still is insightful; Brunner continues:

It is true of course, that to a certain extent we can know the human “thou” by our own efforts, because, and in so far as it is “also an I”, a fellow-human being. The mystery of human personality is not absolute; it is only relative, because it is not only “other than I” but “the same as I”. It can be placed under the same general heading “Man” along with me; it is not and unconditioned “Thou” because it is at the same time a “co-I”. There is no general heading for God. God in particular has no “I” alongside of Himself. He is the “Thou” which is absolutely over against everything else, the “Thou” who cannot at the same time be on the same  level with “me”, “over-against” whom He stands.

Therefore I cannot myself unconditionally think God as this unconditioned “Thou”, but I can only know Him in so far as He Himself, by His own action, makes Himself known to me. It is, of course, true that man can think out a God for himself—the history of philosophy makes this quite plain. In extreme cases a man can “think” a personal God; theistic philosophy is a genuine, even if an extreme possibility. But this personal God who has been conceived by man remains some-thing which has been thought, the object of our thought-world, acting, speaking, manifesting Himself—He does not meet me as a “Thou”, and is therefore not a real “Thou”. He is, as something which I have thought, my function, my positing: He is not the One who addresses me, and in this “address” reveals Himself to me as the One who is quite independent of me.

The God who is merely thought to be personal is not truly personal; the “Living God” who enters my sphere of thought and experience from beyond my thought, in the act of making Himself known to me, by Himself naming His Name—He alone is truly personal.[2]

Karl Barth in his Göttingen Dogmatics has a whole chapter entitled Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken.’ This is language that Barth appropriated from Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, and now we see it as a theme in Brunner’s theology as well. The social analogy notwithstanding, the important aspect to highlight here is that for the Christian we don’t think up God, we don’t think a God concept, we instead are confronted by the living voice of God revealed in Jesus Christ; and it is here where our conception of God comes from.

Implication

So what’s the “practical” implication of this? I would say that, if Brunner et al. is right, Christians are dependent upon revelation in order to think God. We are dependent upon hearing his voice through the voice of the eternal Son incarnate in Jesus Christ. This means, I would contend, that Christian theologians should not try to discover a concept of God as a prius to the God revealed; we should not attempt to synthesize the god discovered by the philosopohers with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. At most, as the patristic theologians did, we might be able to ‘evangelize a metaphysic’ and use the grammar present therein in order to help us talk about God; but only with the qualification that said metaphysic has been retexted in a non-correlationist way under the pressure of the triune God revealed in Christ.

That didn’t sound very practical, did it? Practically speaking I think Christians should not be afraid of the so called ‘scandal of particularity.’ We serve a peculiar and particular God, he is sui generis, unique, and special. He is only knowable because he graciously wanted to be known, and so he became us in Christ that we might become him (so says Irenaneus). The Gospel is the power of God, as such we shouldn’t be afraid to speak after and from this particular God revealed in Jesus Christ. The world may not like it, other Christians might not even like it, but we must insist that the God we speak of and to is the One who first spoke to us in his Son.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 121-22.

[2] Ibid., 121-22.

The Bible is not the End, Jesus Is: Reflections on a Distinction Between Paper, Papal, and Jesus

Jesus is the reality. Everything else is in service to him, particularly Holy Scripture. Karl Barth famously had Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece above his desk in his study; this illustrates well what genuinely Christian theology should be all about: Jesus. As Thomas Torrance often highlights Jesus is the res (reality) while Scripture is the signa (symbol), or witness bearer. Indeed each of us as ambassadors of Jesus Christ function, in proclamation, much as Scripture does (although even subordinate to that, in a qualified way), as those who bear witness to the reality of Jesus Christ.[1]

mattiasgrunewaldUnfortunately what has often happened is that what was supposed to be witness to Jesus instead confused themselves with the reality (of Jesus) himself, and absolutized themselves as an end (even if only relatively construed) rather than a means or symbol or witness bearer to the end, Jesus Christ. A fundamental aspect of the Protestant Reformation was to correct this overplay by the Roman Catholic Church, by developing a theology of the Word. Indeed this became known as the ‘Scripture principle,’ and serves as a hallmark of the Protestant-turn as it were. As should be, Scripture, relative to a theory of authority, ascended to its rightful place within Protestantism, but as with all things human, this turn went too far, and replaced  papal with paper; Protestantism, particularly the Post Reformed Orthodox, and the theology that seeks to repristinate that contemporaneously, began to identify Scripture as an absolute end—in other words the ontology of Scripture lost its rightful place, relative to God, and ascended to heights that really only should belong to the reality of all things, Jesus Christ. Emil Brunner explains it this way:

Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which they eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the “finger”, to the interpretative doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity. The Reformers were right when they rejected the unconditional authority of ecclesiastical doctrine as such; but when the theologians of the Reformation began to believe in a doctrine about Jesus Christ, instead of in Jesus Christ Himself, they lost the best fruit of the Reformation. Reformation theology was right in setting up the Biblical doctrinal authority above the ecclesiastical authority as their norm; but they were wrong, when they made the Biblical doctrine their final unassailable authority, by identifying the Word of God with the word of the Bible. When they did this, in principle, they relapsed into Catholic error; the Protestant faith also became a doctrinal faith, belief in dogma, only now the Biblical dogma took the place of the doctrine of the Church. Protestant orthodoxy arrested the development of the Reformation as a religious awakening.

This distinction between “Jesus Christ Himself” and the doctrine about Him, as final authority, must not, however, be misunderstood in the sense of separation. We do not possess “Jesus Christ Himself” otherwise than in and with the doctrine about Him. But it is precisely this doctrine, without which we cannot have “Him Himself”, which is not Himself, and therefore has only a relative authority. This authority increases the more plainly and clearly as it is connected with Jesus Christ Himself. Thus it is precisely the duty of a genuinely religious—which means, also, a genuinely critical—system of dogmatics to undertake a careful examination of this necessary, obvious connexion between Jesus Christ and the doctrine concerning Him.[2]

There is this constant struggle, well for some, between getting stuck in doctrine and making it to a point where we get beyond the doctrine to its reality in Jesus Christ. As Brunner rightfully leaves off, there is an inextricable linkage between the reality (as absolute) and the witness/doctrine (as relative); but if we are not careful we will fall prey to majoring on the minors, and failing to realize that in the end it has really always already been about a personal encounter with the personal and living God revealed afresh in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Think of Barth’s three-fold form of the Word.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics: Vol. I (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 54.

Emil Brunner and Thomas Torrance on the Difference Between Christian Dogmatics and Apologetics

I just picked up Emil Brunner’s The Christian Doctrine of God, which is his volume one in a series of Christian Dogmatics he has written. While he and I won’t see eye to eye on everything, he’s somebody I can learn from; so expect to hear more from him if you read my blog.

As Brunner starts his Christian Dogmatics out, he of course gives explanation of what Dogmatics actually are. In his giving he offers some profound explication; profound, at least from my emilbrunnerperspective, because he explains what in fact Christian Dogmatics represent. His explanation resonates deeply with me, and should help you all to understand where I am coming from as well; i.e. when you read my blog you should know that I am really never attempting to engage in apologetics, but instead always in the work of Christian Dogmatics. Here is what Brunner writes in this regard:

The intellectual enterprise which bears the traditional title of “dogmatics” takes place within the Christian Church. It is this that distinguishes it from similar intellectual undertakings, especially within the sphere of philosophy, as that is usually understood. Our immediate concern is not to ask whether this particular undertaking is legitimate, useful, or necessary. The first thing we have to say about it is that it is closely connected with the existence of the Christian Church, and that it arises only in this sphere. We study dogmatics as members of the Church, with the consciousness that we have a commission from the Church, and a service to render to the Church, due to a compulsion which can only arise within the Church. Historically and actually, the Church exists before dogmatics. The fact that the Christian Faith and the Christian Church exist, precedes the existence, the possibility, and the necessity for dogmatics. Thus if dogmatics is anything at all, it is a function of the Church.

It cannot, however, be taken for granted that there is, or should be, a science of dogmatics within the Christian Church; but if we reverse the question, from the standpoint of dogmatics it is obvious that we would never dream of asking whether there ought to be a Church, or a Christian Faith, or whether the Christian Faith and the Christian Church have any right to exist at all, or whether they are either true or necessary? Where this question does arise—and in days like ours it must be raised—it is not the duty of dogmatics to given the answer. This is a question for apologetics or “eristics”. But dogmatics presupposes the Christian Faith and the Christian Church not only as a fact bu as the possibility of its own existence. From the standpoint of the Church, however, it is right to put the question of the possibility of, and the necessity for, dogmatics.[1]

Thomas F. Torrance briefly describes Christian Dogmatics this way:

Christian Dogmatics – the church’s orderly understanding of scripture and articulation of doctrine in the light of Christ and their coherence in him.[2]

What should be clear from Brunner’s longer explanation, and T.F. Torrance’s shorter one is that Christian Dogmatics is the work of Christians done within the community of the witness of the church of Jesus Christ; as it is pressed up against the reality of its Subject, the living God who is Triune—the ‘God who has spoken’ (Deus dixit).

I am afraid all too many have confused the work of apologetics or “eristics” with the work of Christian Dogmatics; and if they haven’t then they have unfortunately carried over the tools and methods used by apologists, and imported those into the work of Christian Dogmatics. The work of an apologist is largely the work of a philosopher; the work of a Christian Dogmatician is the work of a Christian thinker who self-consciously is working under the pressures of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The Christian Dogmatician is not trying to “prove” God’s existence, so he/she can then talk about God; no. The Christian Dogmatician, by definition has already repented and come under the reality of the Christian God in Christ in and through the witness of the church. This is the work I am doing here at the blog; I engage in Christian dogmatic thinking.

One more point of clarification: I do not think a Christian apologist, in the work they do, actually “proves” the existence of the living God; what they do, if anything, is “prove” a god-concept. What the apologist or Christian philosopher should avoid is the conflation of their work with that of the Christian dogmatician; they are definitionally different. What has happened though, unfortunately, is that often this is exactly what happens; over-zealous Christian philosophers and apologists import the concept of god they have “proven” into Christian Dogmatics, and think they are the same God, they aren’t!

In regard to Brunner, one thing that you will notice in his definition of Christian Dogmatics is an emphasis on the Church; he offers a very ecclesiocentric approach to things. I fully appreciate his description of Christian Dogmatics, but I want to be more radical and less neo-orthodox than that; I think the reality that ought to ‘control’ Christian Dogmatics is not the church, but Jesus Christ as the rule. Barth and Brunner have a famous disagreement where Barth gives Brunner a loud Nein when it comes to the possibility of natural theology. Brunner affirms a qualified understanding of natural theology, while as we know Barth famously rejects it. I think we are already getting a bit of a whiff of this difference even early on in Brunner; his emphasis on the church, I think, is a corollary of his commitment to a qualified notion of a natural theology.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 3.

[2] T. F. Torrance, ed. Robert T. Walker, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, Glossary.